Computer Mysticism

Last weekend I installed two different versions of Windows on two computers. One was a brand-new PC I built myself, and one was an HP that needed a reinstall. One needed a VPN connection to the MIT network to validate. The other one needed to have its proprietary drivers backed up and restored.

There’s a certain magic to computers when you start getting into the low-level stuff. I don’t mean programming-wise. Reinstalling Windows is more of a mystical art than a straightforward process.

Ancient forum tomes are filled with archaic tutorials. Software is a moving target, and complex formulas and hacks are prone to break down over time.

But even worse is the amount of superstition that gets poured into computer maintenance. Each user has rituals that they are convinced ward off errors. Actually, we see this in all sort of technology usage; people have rites designed to improve buffering speed, battery life, and disk readability. I know a group of people who have a running joke that involves standing on one foot when doing any complex computer maintenance to make it work.

The reclusive Linux alchemists mix their own potions (disdaining the draughts pushed by the shops in town), but use indecipherable notation in their recipes. Elixirs are delicate brews, and the average person doesn’t have the same instincts that let alchemists be productive.

Yet after going through the ordeal of reinstalling Windows or constructing a computer from scratch (and having it work!), you have a lingering feeling of power. The minor incongruities and annoyances that plague modern software usage no longer make you feel helpless. You are an empowered user, able to conquer any confounding roadblock. You may not be a mage, but you aren’t completely powerless under the whims of the wizards in the grand Corporate Tower.


Programming Paradigms

Computer science is a relatively young field, and it has rapidly evolved ever since its inception. This becomes increasingly evident when you look at computer science being taught versus computer science being used. This is extremely apparent in the misnomer: computer science. CS is more technical art than science.

For a long time, computers had finite computational resources and memory. Today, our average consumer-grade computer is comparable to a super computer from 1985. Thusly, the twenty first century requires programming paradigms far different from those taught in the twentieth century. It no longer pays off to optimize the number of calculations or amount of memory your program uses, unless you are specifically performing mathematically intensive operations. This blog voices that sentiment much better than I can.

So programming now is about implementing an idea. Its easy to rise above the technical nitty gritty details and focus on the concept at hand. Then programming becomes a form of poetry, in which you express your ideas in a structured and rhythmic way. Programming, at a consumer level, is no longer about getting a machine to do what you want; its about empowering people.

Just like a poet spends many hours revising their verses and getting the words to say exactly what is meant, a programmer spends hours rearranging and improving code to fulfill their idea effectively. And like poetry, there are many genres and styles of programming. Unfortunately, programming is also like poetry in the way that many students get turned off to it by the experiences they have with it in school.

Programming should be taught with the main objective in mind: we are here to accomplish a mission. Writing mechanics are practiced and improved, but without an idea behind a poem or story, it is pointless. Algorithms are important, and so is project design and planning. But these are merely implements with which to express the programmer’s idea.

This is why the most successful software is easy to use, is powerful, or grants people an ability they didn’t have before. When you use a program, it doesn’t matter whether all the variables are global, whether the project was built top-down or bottom-up. The functional differences of some of the most disputed methods are miniscule. Optimization is a trivial concern when compared with the user interface. Is the parse speed of one file format more important than the support of a larger number of formats?

Kids want to be programmers because of coding heroes like Notch, the creator of Minecraft. But Minecraft isn’t well-designed. In fact, the program is a piece of crap that can barely run on a laptop from 5 years ago despite its simplicity. But the idea is gold, and that is what people notice. This is why Minecraft and Bioshock, and not COD, inspire people to be game developers.

However, functional programming is the CS taught in schools. Schools need to teach the art of computer science, not only the science. Imagine if writing was only taught, even up through college, in the scope of writing paragraphs. Essays and papers would just be a string of non sequiturs (kind of like this blog). Fiction would have no comprehensible story, only a series of finely crafted paragraphs. Only those who figured out the basic structures of plot, perhaps by reading books by others who had done the same, would learn to write meaningful stories.

In the future, everyone will be a programmer to some degree. At some point data will become so complex that to even manipulate information people will need to be able to interface with data processors through some sort of technical language in order to describe what they want. To survive in a digital world you either need software to help you interface with it, or learn the language of the realm.

Yet children are being driven off in droves because computers are being approached in education from completely the wrong angle. Computers are tool we use to accomplish tasks; the use of computers should not be taught just because “people need to be able to use computers in order to survive in the modern world”, but because children will be able to implement their ideas and carry out tasks much easier if they do have an expanded skillset on the computer. Computer skills should be taught in the form of “how would you go about doing X? Ok, what if I told you there was a much easier way?”

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